Sunday, February 28, 2016

Houses and Boats

I took a new little back street to work this morning and found four traditional houses built in the local style.  These are great to find and actually many of them are empty.  One of the women at the Center rents a traditional house, which she calls a nagaya, for $1,000 a year.  You got that right, less than $100 a month.  These places are basically considered worthless here in Japan...

Note: since first posting this I have learned that a nagaya is the name for a row of houses that share the same roofline and have very narrow frontage.  In the old days taxes were calculated by frontage and you can find some impossibly narrow homes in Japan.  Even modern homes, as architects have to deal with old lots in urban areas.  Its really something to get out into the countryside, where one suddenly finds huge old farmhouses.

I am not writing from much expertise but that first floor looks like it was a business to me, with living quarters upstairs.  Even today many or most Mom and Pop businesses have the residences in the back.

Porch roof eave detail.

Main roof beam ends covered in copper.

The NPO I am working for started in part of this old soy sauce factory.  This is an amazing complex of old buildings.  The NPO occupied the building on the left.  I've been told there are some huge old wooden barrels and tubs inside, which I am hoping to get a look at.

The NPO restored the kura, or fireproof storehouse, a plastered building coated with tin.  It was a very cool space.

Back at the new center I assembled the two bow planks today.

I've never fitted planks before at an angle.  I don't even know if the original boatbuilders did it this way but its an educated guess.  Most readers of this blog would fit two boat planks using a plane but in Japan all planks are fit using a series of saws.

To figure out the edge-nailing I drew it full size.  This would be called lofting in the West.  In Japan I've never seen a traditional boatbuilder loft anything full size; all the information is scaled from a 1/10th drawing or just done from experience and memory.  At first I thought I would curve the nails, but then I realized a nail curved back would not pass through the mortise, so I did the layout for straight nails.

I had to offset the holes from center quite a bit, and angle my chisel when piloting the holes into the mortises, plus make sure I got the offset and angle right on the other plank.

This tool is for cleaning out the holes to a consistent width.

You probably want to click on this photo to get a close look at the end of the chisel.

The bow planks nailed together, three nails from one side, two from the other.  


  1. It is so hard to believe that in a culture that seems to have a reverence for wood these beautiful examples of traditional architecture are considered worthless. Timeless design, fine workmanship and premium materials.
    I have been following your blog for a few years and I find your work interesting and important. Thanks for sharing your adventures.
    Don S.

  2. I've wondered the same thing, but over time have come to realize how in Japan (and now the rest of Asia) this kind of traditional living is associated with very, very hard times. The phenomenal rise of the Japanese economy through the 1980s made people want modern homes and consumer products, especially given the deprivation of the post-War years. In one sense we in the West can afford to regard these building with nostalgia. Imagine the loss of rural culture happening today in China, India, and Vietnam? I truly appreciate my own culture's love of the old, but we do so from a position of privilege. It's complicated.


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